Xiaoxiao Huang
Oct. 26, 2009

A Review of The Struggle for Modern Tibet
And a Comparison of Editions

The Struggle for Modern Tibet is the life story of a Tibetan named Tashi Tsering, narrated by him and put into written form by Melvyn Goldstein and William Siebenschuh. Tashi Tsering was born in 1929 into a peasant family. At ten years old, he was selected by the Tibetan government to join the Dalai Lama’s ceremonial dance troupe (Tib. Gadrugba) in Lhasa. Exhibiting an intense craving for being literate, he soon discovered what kinds of constraints the traditional Tibet society could put on his educational pursuits. Undeterred, Tsering found his way to India and then to the U.S. to study. In the meantime, Tibet became part of the new Communist China. Unlike his aristocratic Tibetan friends, Tsering saw the Chinese occupation as an impetus for Tibet’s modernization. He was so optimistic that he later dismissed all of his American friends’ objections and boarded a ship to China in 1966, when Chin has just started the Cultural Revolution. Before he knew it, Tsering was wrongfully accused and put into prison. As it turned out, Tsering’s goal to help the Tibetans was delayed for more than a decade. After his eventual rehabilitation in 1978, he dedicated his later life to compiling a Tibetan-Chinese-English dictionary and building elementary schools in Tibetan villages. In this biography, Tsering tells his story from 1929 when he was born, to 1994 when his life was finally less turbulent.

Why did Tsering want to tell his story? As he told Goldstein, when he wanted the latter to help on the project, he thought foreigners needed to know about common Tibetans; that is, “Tibetans who were not aristocrats or monastic prelates or incarnate lamas”(viii). By telling his life story, Tsering certainly helped his readers see a different picture of Tibet from the one painted by the elites of the traditional society in the exile government, who had come to represent the Tibetans in the West. Thus, it is not surprising that Tashi Tsering’s perception of the traditional Tibet is not as fancy as that of the aristocrats.

Tsering has ambivalent feelings toward the traditional Tibetan society. On one hand, he is very proud of the Tibetan way of life, and he rigorously defended aspects of it that Westerners are having the most difficult time to understand. He goes to great lengths to defend two particular features of Tibetan culture that are closely related to his personal life: the common practice of brothers marrying the same woman, and monk officials keeping young boys as homosexual partners. Tsering’s fathers, who are also brothers, married the same woman. Tsering explains that polyandry makes perfect sense in that it prevented a family from being divided among brothers. And monk officials having homosexual partners is a reasonable way to keep them sane, Tsering argues, as long as their behaviors did not violate their vows. Therefore, when he was serving in the Gadrugba in Lhasa, and a high ranking monk official named Wangdu wanted to make him his partner, Tsering accepted it. He was aware that Westerners would find problems in these practices, but he was not apologetic of his own culture. He believes that Tibetans have a right to a distinct tradition.

On the other hand, Tsering is deeply unsatisfied with some elements of the traditional Tibetan society. He despises the exploitative and sometimes brutal aspects of traditional culture. For one thing, he was selected to join the Gadrugba against the will of his family. But since it was a duty to the Dalai Lama, he and his family just had to live with it. When the extensive training began in the Gadrugba, he constantly found himself the victim of the manager's whipping. He resented the manager, whom the kids in Gadrugba nicknamed “pockmark.” Also, after he became Wangdu's partner, other monks coveted him. A fighter monk in Sera Monastery once abducted him and forced him to be his sex slave. He was not released until two days later. Since the fighter monks as a group are violent, ruthless, and politically powerful in Lhasa, neither Tsering nor Wangdu could do anything about it. When he complained to other monk officials, all he got was “that was just the way things were” (29). This incident certainly deepened Tsering’s negative feeling toward “the way things are” in Tibetan society. He wondered how the traditional monastic culture could harbor such thugs in the first place.

But the one thing about the traditional Tibetan society that bothers him the most is the illiteracy and the low regard for education. Tsering had developed a craving for reading and writing at a very early age. He wanted to write beautiful Tibetan scripts just as his father did, possibly the only person who was literate in his village at that time. But the Tibetan way of life is such that tradition can tell each member exactly who one is and what one is supposed to do – education is utterly unnecessary, at least for the majority of Tibetans who are neither monks nor aristocrats. The average Tibetan does not associate education with wealth or social mobility. Therefore education is not highly valued. As his first father-in-law remarked to Tsering: “you are very good at learning, but you can never get a high post. All you’ll ever get is a lowly position where you sit all day with nothing to do. So why waste your time and energy on this fruitless activity?” (31). “Fruitless activity,” such is the typical Tibetan’s view of education. Tsering is a deviant in having had a craving for study at all.

The more Tashi Tsering learned about the outside world, the more he realized how far Tibet had lagged behind. Tsering had come to believe that even though the traditional society did not need education to function, it now needed it in order to compete and survive. His personal pursuit of education thus became part of the struggle for a modern Tibet. Unlike his aristocrat friends, he was impressed by the efficiency and discipline of the Chinese when they first entered Lhasa. The PLA built roads and quickly set up hospitals and schools. In the course of a few years after the Chinese arrived, Tibet had seen a lot of change. More change, as Tsering has commented, “than Tibet had seen in centuries” (41). The contrast is telling. While he was fascinated by the modernity of the outside world, he did not want to change everything in Tibet. He envisioned a kind of change that will make Tibet a competitive modern nation while still retains its distinct ethnic identity.

Tsering’s ambivalent feeling about change put him right between the Chinese and the Tibetan elites in exile with whom he had come to develop close ties. He and the Tibetan elites were of the same people, culturally and ethnically. But he felt deeply oppressed by them politically. The Chinese were helping Tibet modernize, but eventually Tsering felt that they were bringing more change than he would like to see for Tibet. His ambivalent feeling is best captured in a reflection at the end of the book, in which he said, “I adamantly do not wish a return to anything remotely like the old Tibetan theocratic feudal society, but I also do not think that the price of change and modernity should be the loss of one’s language and culture” (200). As a result, he was never able to fully identify himself with either camp, who have since debated vigorously, perhaps another reason why his story is worth telling.

A Comparison of Original English Version
and the Translated Chinese Version Published by Beijing

The original English version of “The Struggle for Modern Tibet” was published in 1997 in the United States. In 2000, the first Chinese edition was made available through Mirror Books, mainly circulating in Hong Kong and the U.S. Six years later in 2006, a politically revised Chinese translation was published by China Tibetology Publishing House in Beijing. While the Mirror Books version stays faithfully to the original, the one published by Tibetology Publishing House exhibits interesting edits that shed light on how the Chinese state has been trying to keep narratives in tune with the official line, even for a book that undermines the narrative of the government-in-exile more than it does that of China. This section tries to compare the two editions (the English original and the Beijing Chinese translation) to draw common tactics in political editing that the state authorities have employed to censor literature related to the history and politics of Tibet.

One central theme of the censorship is to downplay ethnic confrontation. Tashi Tsering frequently set a dichotomy between “the Tibetans” and “the Chinese,” implying confrontation between “insiders” and “outsiders,” or “us vs. them.” To straighten that perspective, the Beijing version revised some key words to put the conflicts in the “central government vs. local government” framework, thereby toning down the ethnic confrontation and internalized the problem. Whenever Tsering referred to “the Chinese government” in the original, the Beijing edition changed them to “the Central Government.” Or when Tsering commented on how the Tibetan aristocrats hated “the Chinese,” the Beijing version changed that to “the Communists.” Along the same line, “Chinese troops” became “the PLA” (32). It seems that the state narrative allows some Tibetans, especially the aristocrats to express their hatred toward the Communists – after all, the “bad guys” always hated the “good guys” – but never was it acceptable for any Tibetan to express hatred toward “China” or “the Chinese,” which would seriously undermine the pro-unification state narrative that has always stressed the perception of all nationalities belonging to one China. When in the original Tsering said that his Tibetan aristocrat friends in the U.S “hated the communists and China and were committed to freeing Tibet from Chinese control,” the Beijing version deems it less inappropriate if his friends just “hated the communists and were committed to freeing Tibet from communist control” (238).

Another theme is to edit out facts that imply Tibet’s relatively independent status in history. In several passages when Tsering made reference to a “Tibetan government,” the censored edition changed it to “Tibetan local government” (9). What to Tsering is “the capital city” becomes simply “Lhasa” (10). And certainly a politically correct Tibet could not have had a “traditional government,” it was only the “Kashag” (12). When Tashi Tsering commented in passing that “Tibet had its own coinage,” the Beijing version edited out “its own” and left only “Tibet had coinage” (5). Tsering mentioned Mr. Tolstoy in the original, who had been traveling through “Tibet and China” during the WWI; in the Beijing version, he was just traveling through “China” (63).

The most notable difference of the Beijing version is that Tashi Tsering’s accounts of two meetings with the 14th Dalai Lama were missing. They are highlights in the original version, as Tashi Tsering was eager to seek the Dalai Lama’s approval for his plan. Instead, the Beijing version placed a color picture of Tashi Tsering being photographed with the 10th Panchen Lama in 1988 in the very first page, which was not included in the English version. The intention of toning down the Dalai Lama’s influence is obvious. In the original, the entire Epilogue was devoted to Tsering’s second meeting with the Dalai Lama. To get around that, the Beijing version has a new Epilogue written by Tashi Tsering, making no reference to the Dalai Lama at all. Instead, the new epilogue begins by explaining the difference of the titles used in the English and the Chinese version. While the English title of his book is “The Struggle for Modern Tibet,” the Chinese one reads “Tibet Is My Home.” Tsering assures his mainland Chinese readers: “…but it is only a difference of book titles, the contents in these two versions are exactly the same” (186).

Or so Mr. Tashi Tsering had hoped.